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Unconventional Works for Percussion Ensemble

Aaron Graham | May 2018

    In the past 20-30 years there has been exciting and rapid growth in percussion ensemble repertoire, especially for younger players. Although the typical battery of percussion instruments remains common, some composers have chosen to work with unusual combinations of these instruments, or even unusual instruments themselves. Here are twelve works that use typical percussion instruments in unusual settings and instrumentations or use unconventional objects as percussive instruments.

Release the Kraken
By John Willmarth (Tapspace, grade 3)
For four players on a single five-piece drumset

    This is a great work for introducing young students to percussion ensemble, as well as for programs that have limited instrumentation. Each player is assigned various pieces of a single drumset, and the piece covers a wide range of possibilities through this interesting idea. Not only do the interlocking rhythms and grooves create some engaging drumset-like patterns, but the overall musicality and dynamic contrasts produce something much more than generic-sounding drumset grooves. The grooves and fast rhythms passed around the ensemble are sure to make this quite enjoyable for your performers.

Stick Insect
By Jane Boxall (Honeyrock Publications, grade 3)
For four players playing drumsticks

   This is a short, somewhat simple, and entertaining work. Sitting on the floor with drumsticks, four players play corresponding rhythms, creating some engaging grooves, and interact with the players beside them by playing on their sticks as well. This choreography is sure to be exciting for performers and audience alike, and the techniques employed are great pedagogical tools as young students are introduced to percussion ensemble playing. 

Rung Again
By Chris Cockarell (Row-Loff, grade 3)
For four players with four ladders

    This novelty work has each player using drumsticks to create interesting and interlocking grooves by striking, buzzing, and scraping various surfaces of the ladders. It is amazing that such a musical realization can come from simple home hardware. The work provides interesting and humorous choreography for your audience to enjoy.

Heads Up
By Mark Ford (Innovative Percussion, grade 3)
For five players on various sized drum heads and three drums

    In this work, each player carries a drum head and plays it in a variety of ways including on the head and rim with a drumstick, with their hand, and by striking the head on the ground. Three frame drums are later added into the setup as the intensity of the work increases. The result is an entertaining combination of hocket (almost drum line style) grooves, visually engaging choreography, and exciting rhythmic interplay that makes this more than just a novelty work. The accessibility of the instrumentation also makes this work an ideal candidate for programs with a small instrument inventory.

By Brad Meyer (Bachovich Music Publications, grade 3)
For eight players with eight pieces of wood and eight toms

    The simplicity of instrumentation for this work only makes the performance more engaging, as players weave in and out of hocket grooves, commanding rhythmic punctuations, and intriguing metric modulations. The composer calls for each player to have a slate of purple heart wood and one tom tom, which is played in various fashions, such as on the shell or rim. Much of the piece requires the players to pass quick rhythms around the ensemble and will be reminiscent of some taiko drumming ensembles, or even modern drum lines. The work traverses a wide scope of musical possibilities with a seemingly simple setup of drums and pieces of wood.

Fanfare for Tambourines
By John Alfieri (Colla Voce, grade 4)
For six players with six tambourines, two toms, and bass drum

    This work not only provides a great example of the wide range of sounds possible with a tambourine, but also indulges the audience with an entertaining show exploring these possibilities. As the work uses the majority of techniques that students should be familiar with, it could also be a great educational tool in tambourine pedagogy. All players have a tambourine, and three of the players also cover one of the three drums. The work employs interesting rhythmic grooves through various kinds of tambourine rolls and such extended techniques as placing the tambourine on a drum and playing with sticks. This is a fun work to perform and a real crowd-pleaser, not only because of the grooves and techniques required by the performers, but also because of how animated playing the tambourine can be.

By Mark Ford (Innovative Percussion, grade 4)
For three players on a 4.3-octave marimba

    Stubernic has become a staple of the percussion ensemble repertoire, thanks to both its beautiful and alluring melodic content as well as the animated nature of the choreography involved with the work. The piece begins with a fast and lively groove. Sections of the work require the players to spin around behind each other as they move up and down the marimba, creating an exciting show for the audience. The middle of the three players then takes on a soloist’s role as the outer players play on various parts of the marimba frame in accompanimental rhythms. Following the solo, the piece accelerates to a climactic and exhilarating ending that is sure to satisfy performers and audiences alike.

By Josh Gottry (C. Alan, grade 4)
For five players and five pairs of shakers

    Each player performs with various kinds of shakers, such as maracas, egg shakers, and caixixi. The composer skillfully elevates these instruments far beyond their typical time-keeping roles through various interlocking grooves, rhythmic punctuations, and difficult and lively soloistic passages. Furthermore, this work is an excellent example of a potential pedagogical tool for teaching shaker technique. Gottry employs not only typical eighth- and 16th-note ostinato figures, but also more advanced techniques such as various types of rolls at differing dynamics, broken 16th-note rhythms, and accent patterns of varying difficulty. The instrumentation of the work also makes it ideal for a program that might travel but has concerns about instrument storage space.

Shared Space
By Ivan Trevino (self-published, grade 4)
For seven players with a five-octave marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, cajon, and two toms

    Ivan Trevino has established himself as one of the leading composers in the percussion world, and this is a great example of why he has come to such prominence. As the title suggests, multiple players share first the vibraphone (on both sides of the keyboard), and then the marimba, making this work ideal for programs that might not have a large selection of instruments available. The piece follows a kind of post-minimalistic groove as it meanders through the rich, lush harmonies that are characteristic of Trevino’s style. It is a very high energy work, and is sure to be a favorite for your percussion ensemble.

Table Music
By Thierry De Mey (Percussion Music Europe, grade 5)
For three players with three pieces of wood or small tables

    This is a fascinating work that requires the players to perform a multitude of actions such as flick, tap, slide, scrape, drum, as well as some theatrical hand gestures. The resulting work is at times rhythmic interlocking groove, part music theater-esque visual, and ultimately a stimulating and animated show for an audience. The work employs graphic notation in the score -and would be a great introduction for someone unaccustomed to notations of this type. Although this is a work for a small setup, the composer uses these simple pieces of wood to their full potential, creating a wonderful and exciting work for the performers to explore.

Music for Pieces of Wood
By Steve Reich (Universal Edition, grade 5)
For five players on sets of tuned claves

This work is a staple in the percussion ensemble repertoire and is a classic example of Reich’s minimalist style of building rhythmic cells. It is written for each player to play a set of tuned claves, but I have seen performances of the work where the performers stand around one xylophone, which may be more suitable for those who are unable to find five sets of tuned claves. Written at a fast tempo, this may be a challenging work for younger players, but is one that all percussionists should play at some point in their musical careers, not only because of its purely rhythmic nature, but also because of the prominent position the composer holds in our musical history. While the first player keeps a steady ostinato of quarter notes, each successive player builds new rhythmic patterns on top of each previous pattern, creating a very intricate and exciting hocket of rhythmic grooves.

Escape: Sextet for Triangles
By Drew Worden (self-published, grade 5)
For six players on six triangles

    This is a fantastic work that meanders in and out of intricate grooves through all manner of triangle performance. The work is written for various sized triangles and would be a great choice for a program requiring a simple setup, or a possible off-campus performance. Through quick hocket rhythms, precise muffling throughout, and even some interesting choreography for the performers, the piece covers a wide musical range with this simple instrumentation. Although the piece is simple in idea, the difficulty, coupled with the ample musicality of the work make this anything but a novelty.